Pawns in the immigrant game

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 April, 2006, 12:00am

With 200,000 foreign domestic workers helping to turn the wheels and gears of Hong Kong's economy, could we function normally if they all, suddenly, staged a protest? I am not talking about a one-day stoppage: that happens every Sunday, when holidaying maids swamp much of Central. I'm thinking more of industrial action during the working week, when families' day-to-day lives seem to depend on their paid help.

Who would cook the meals, wash the dishes, do the laundry, clean the bathrooms, scrub the windows, vacuum the floors, make the beds, take the children to school, feed the babies and accompany grandad to the doctor?

A while ago, while on assignment in Manila, I was taunted jokingly by a Filipino reporter who learned I was from Hong Kong: 'How many modern-day slaves do you have there now?' he asked. I insisted the maids here are a happy lot, but that wasn't his point. He was referring to our dependence on them.

I bring all this up because I have just returned from the United States, where the second-biggest political issue gripping the nation after Iraq is not high gas prices, China or a possible invasion of Iran - but immigration, especially from Latin America.

Hong Kong's foreign domestic workers are not immigrants; they are guest workers who must eventually leave. But in most other ways they are little different from the thousands of illegal Hispanic immigrants who daily sneak into the US. Like our Filipino, Indonesian and other maids, the illegal Latinos fill jobs that most Americans shun.

Our helpers could, if they put their minds to it, cause widespread disruption to the daily life of this city, and that is what America's Latinos have in mind for the US on May 1 - International Labour Day. Some are calling it 'A day without immigrants', and others 'The great American boycott'. The double-billing has one aim - by skipping work and not buying anything, Latinos hope to demonstrate their importance to the US economy.

How painful a punch they can throw remains to be seen, but their planned action, together with the recent mass protests in major American cities, have further stoked what is already an inflamed national debate on the role of immigrants in US society.

Mention immigrants, and racism is seldom far behind. In Hong Kong, too, its ugliness poisons the life of South Asian and other communities. Even mainland immigrants feel its sting, although they are ethnic Chinese, as do foreign domestic helpers who are guest workers.

Racism is driving part of the immigration debate in the US. One bill passed by the House of Representatives, though not supported by the Senate, calls for branding the country's 11 million illegal immigrants as criminals, deporting them and building a 1,100km fence along the US-Mexican border. A less xenophobic bill in the Senate proposes a guest worker programme and a path to citizenship for the illegals already in the country.

Both sides are entrenched in their positions. Lawmakers, mindful of their own mid-term elections in November, will use the coming months to gauge the extent of bigotry among voters in their constituencies before deciding which bill to support. Their pandering to voters - rather than using their own consciences to decide the fate of 11 million Hispanics - is a good example of the ugly side of democracy.

America's immigration dilemma has made me wonder about our own evolving democracy. Do we want unchecked democracy? Or is it possible to take it to a point that guarantees only a functioning and fair system, instead of one in which elected officials tap into the prejudices of voters - such as endorsing harsher treatment of foreign maids or tolerance of racism against minorities - to stay in office?

Michael Chugani is editor-in-chief of ATV English News and Current Affairs




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